Staying Fit With Chronic Pain

Updated:May 20,2014

Chronic Pain and Exercise GraphicWhether you’re recovering from surgery or struggling with an injury, it’s a fact: You hurt. But you still need to protect yourself from the risks for heart disease or stroke — and that means exercise and diet.

It also means paying attention to prescribed medication and communicating with your healthcare providers, said Robert Bonow, M.D., a professor of cardiology at Northwestern University Medical School.

Dr. Bonow, who is also a past president of the American Heart Association, said it’s crucial that even patients with chronic pain find a way to fit in fitness, preferably 30 minutes a day.

“Find the most comfortable way of exercise for you,” Dr. Bonow said.

He suggests looking for different ways to get exercise to find what feels right. For example, you may want to trade high-impact activities such as jogging for exercises that are less jarring such as cycling, walking, strength-training or swimming as your body heals. Runners may try jogging in a pool to decrease the impact on their body.

There are yoga techniques that can be taught by a physical therapist or yoga instructor that can not only help you keep you moving during your healing process, but also help relieve stress.

Tai Chi is also often a recommended treatment for people with mobility challenges and post-surgery activity limitations.

“You can even do exercises while laying on your back,” Dr. Bonow said. “Anything that increases aerobic activity is beneficial.”

What about medication?
If you’re in pain, talk to your doctor about prescription and over-the-counter drugs. There are different types of anti-inflammatory medications. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs include over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen and naproxen, and prescription drugs such as Celebrex. (Taking these can increase your risk for heart attack, so heart patients often avoid them.) Other medications may cause the body to retain water, which can aggravate high blood pressure or lead to heart failure.

But if taking those medications means a patient can keep moving, the risks can be outweighed by the health benefits of exercise, Dr. Bonow said. If pain medication is needed, consult with your doctor to manage the risks, starting with drugs that carry the lowest risks.

Get the support you need
Find a supportive environment that will help keep you motivated to keep up exercise and diet while you’re managing other conditions, whether that’s a support group, loved ones or a class in your own community or recommended by your healthcare provider. “Try to find something that works for you,” he said. “There’s no ‘one size fits all’ here.”

“Under stress, people sometimes overindulge, or turn to sweets because it’s emotionally soothing,” Dr. Bonow said.

While chronic pain may increase your stress level, when eating try to stick to foods that are low in salt and saturated and trans fats, and favor lean meats, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.

It's also important to manage stress, especially if it causes you to do things that are bad for your heart health, including smoking, not getting enough sleep, avoiding regular exercise or eating unhealthy foods.

Last Reviewed 5/19/2014

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